What is School For?

It’s a question not frequently asked: What is school for?  

However, the New York Times asked it a few weeks ago, and gave twelve educators a chance to answer. The answers were presented in the format of a multiple-choice test. The Answers:

a) Everyone

b) Economic mobility

c) Making citizens

d) Care

e) Wasting time

f)  Learning to read

g) Connecting to nature

h) Merit

i) Hope

j) Parent activism

k) Teaching

l) Us

I can’t argue with any of those answers, with the exception of e). If schools are wasting time, or boring, they should be burned down and started over.

I’d like to add to those answers. Not only what it is for, but what it can be. Not only its function but its possibilities. School is such a beautiful, fragile, pulsating ecosystem, so delicate in structure, so complex in its human-to-human interconnections, so freighted with reciprocities of thought and feeling. It demands a close analysis of what it is, a microscopic and macroscopic gaze of wonderment, not a one-word answer.

School is a place for Poetry: a place where the words of poets reverberate, are enacted, felt, and lived. On Friday, I asked the class if anyone had a poem to read at the end of morning meeting. Lil said, “I have a poem. I got it from my mom.” The poem was “Wild Apples,” by Ruth Stone, who, incidentally, was the great-grandparent of an NBS alum.

Lil opened up a piece of folded paper:

In August we carried the old horsehair mattress
To the back porch
And slept with our children in a row.
The wind came up the mountain into the orchard
Telling me something:
Saying something urgent.
I was happy.
The green apples fell on the sloping roof
And rattled down.
The wind was shaking me all night long;
Shaking me in my sleep
Like a definition of love,
Saying, this is the moment,
Here, now.

Lil read the poem to us as we sat on the patio in a jagged circle. School is for sitting in a circle, listening to poems. School is where we listen for what is urgent and necessary. Apples on a roof, and the wind coming up the mountain. Schools should be like orchards, gnarled limbs and fruit, where the kids can reach the poetry inside them and outside around them and in each other.

School is a place for flowers and leaves: All around us are woods, the mowed field, the rock wall, the ferns, a few stray wild apple trees, wild asters, and goldenrod. The leaves are reddening and falling, curling and drying. On Friday, for science, the kids went to the field and woods with their Perpetual journals to make drawings of what they found. Identifying Solomon’s Seal, black oak, mullein, and Queen Anne’s lace. School is for finding the scientific names, and seeing new words that explain the world.

School is for strange tasks and experimenting. Folding paper and cutting only one straight cut to make a triangle fall from the center of a sheet of paper. School is for doing that over and over and finally figuring it out.

School is for hearing words from great thinkers: On the first morning I read the kids a quote from Toni Morrison:    

“Well, now you may be asking yourself: what is all this. I can’t save the world. What about my life. I didn’t ask to come here. I didn’t ask to be born. Didn’t you? I put it to you that you did. You not only asked to be born, you insisted on your life. That is why you are here. No other reason. It was too easy not to be. Now that you are here, you have to do something that you respect, don’t you. Your parents didn’t dream you up—you did. I am simply urging you to continue the dream you started. For dreaming is not irresponsible; it is first order human business. It is not entertainment, it is work. When Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “I have a dream,” he was not playing; he was serious. When he imagined it, envisioned it, created it in his own mind it began to be, and we must dream too to give it the heft and stretch and longevity it deserves. Don’t let anybody, anybody, convince you this is the way the world is and therefore must be. It must be the way it ought to be.” 

I asked the kids: “Now that you are here, what must you do, something that you respect, something that will move you in the direction of your dreams?” This question, and variations of it, is the basis of the speeches the kids began to write. But in order to answer the question, one has to look at oneself. To begin to question one’s actions and thoughts. This is the best place for learning, right at the edge between what you know and what you don’t know. To become more conscious of thought and feeling, not only of self but others. Toni Morrison meant to provoke us, disrupt us, to put us in a state of spiritual and mental tension. Wiley responded: “Last year I was closed to learning, but I began to open up. Now I want to be even more open.” School is for hearing their ideas, and helping them shape those ideas into a coherent, palpable, enactable vision.

School is for hearing stories: Stories about mistakes, courage, impulsivity, loss, risk-taking, stagnation, care, thoughtfulness, cruelty, tenderness, remorse, failure, love, anger, grief, loneliness, belonging, generosity, triumph. I told them stories about kids I had taught in the past. Kids just like them. We dissected those stories for lessons we could take. Of what a team is. The meaning of helping. Carrying a lesson forward into the future and giving it to someone else. Being aware of the least among us. Stepping into the light to do what no one else is willing to do. Of the superhuman kindness of strangers. Understanding that growth is not always a straight line, but a continual process of going forward, cycling back, going forward again.

School is for telling stories about oneself, and learning from the stories of others. Every speech has an idea in it, and every idea has a story behind it. I asked the kids to take two or three books off the shelf, the titles of which spoke to their state of mind, how they were feeling, where they are in their lives as they start this year. Indeed, there was a story behind each choice. Owen chose Of Wolves and Men. Because he was thinking about being in seventh grade, when he was sure the older kids were voracious wolves and he would never survive. Then he chose Native Son, because now he feels, after two years, that he has a place here, and that he is a native son in the school. Lila chose Adventures in the Skin Trade. Her interpretation of the title is that she is trying to shed false skins so that she can find her way to her own authentic self, a skin that is hers and hers alone. Louis chose The Turn of the Screw, because he was thinking about his last school where he felt himself to be no more than a tiny part of a machine. Colt chose Wallace Stevens’ Whole Harmonium, because he had an intimation of a vision, of a school where all of us were making a harmonic verse. Aurora chose a memoir by Nelson Mandela. At first, her reason was that her mom is from South Africa, and so to pick that book was to pick something familiar. Then she opened up the cover and read the quote on the inside flap. When it came time for her to tell the class what she’d chosen, she read Mandela’s words from the book: “There is no easy walk to freedom, anywhere, and many of us will have to pass through the Valley of the Shadow of death again and again before we reach the mountain top of our desires.”

School should be for asking which valleys of the shadow of death we have passed through, and what must we do in order to reach the mountain top of our desires. School is for having moments when a kid reads us the words of Nelson Mandela.

School is for asking open-ended questions that will take a lifetime to answer, questions that have infinite ways to respond. Here is a partial list of what the kids came up with in response to Toni Morrison’s challenge in the first hours on Tuesday:

To be the kind of person who helped me when I was in seventh grade/To act with empathy/sympathy when others are struggling/To not only think about myself, but others/To be able to find peace both here and at home/To find a new home for myself after leaving my old home/How to deal with anxiety about the state of the world/To make a school or life that is good–not bad/To feel like more than a screw in a machine, but to matter to people/To be able to accept mistakes, or blame, and then grow from that/To make a new space for myself where I am not only giving and where I am not the target/To find a way to find my passion and live it and show it/To become more “zen-ful”/To know that there is always more to learn, and that I can’t say, “I know this, but to say, there is so much I don’t know”/To Accept the mystery of this new year and to be open to it/To be more open to learning, and make more room in myself for learning and trying new things/To stay open and take every chance and opportunity that is presented/to not miss my chances/To come out of my shell and learn to be free from fear/To find a reason for hope/To help all of us find our roles and “instruments” and harmonies/To find the real story of myself, and to have courage to keep telling it/To have strength to love myself and feel loved, and to accept when others are loving me/To not be caught up in my dark imaginings, or let my negative imagination take over my thoughts/To feel like I belong and matter/To navigate the difficulty of leaving my old home and making a new home here/To try to the best of my ability, and to not be overly afraid if I don’t know how to do something/To keep reflecting on and learning from my memories and dreams/To know that what I think will happen NEVER is what happens, and to have more trust when I am afraid/To find myself more comfortable in my own skin../To be ready to put my story into the big collection of stories/To embrace the TWO suns rising–the sun of reason and logic, and the sun of expression and feeling/Coping with being afraid/To love the mystery of a new year/To know there is no easy walk to freedom and that there are many struggles in order to get to the mountain top/To remember that I once felt like wolves were going to eat me, but I survived and learned/To have those around me see me for what I am doing and judge it or think negatively of it–to not feel ostracized but to belong fully/To feel completely here, and to be in this moment, not the past or future/To not be overmastered by echoes of the past/To not be like I was last year, when I limited myself by feeling like an outside, but to feel and live out of being a part of things/To “read the mountains of home” and learn from the mountains/people/experiences around me–to feel and learn from the intricacies of the lives of others/To combine the magic of home and school as one thing/To think of life as beautiful and growing–as a sunflower/To be alive to the “sea and the bells” all around me.

A school should be a place for speaking about those visions as though one were a preacher or prophet, as Cullen did, when he spoke of each person being a mountain of intricacies, and that we are learning to Read the mountains of home” and each other. School should be for enacting those visions, for making them real, a continual adventure of becoming and discovering, of mountain-making.

School should be a place where what needs to happen happens. To be outside. To take time. To put the phone away. To sit in the sun or shade. To swim if the day is warm. To get muddy playing soccer and track mud in. To celebrate birthdays. To sit at the table. To try. To remember screwing up, and then trying again. To show each other where the trails and paths go, to lead each other forward. To weed the patio, put up a volleyball net, bring in a trilobite or a feather or a seed. To put an image of oneself on one’s work. We did this on Friday at a picnic table in the shade, where each class made collages for their class notebooks. Schools are for putting your name and self on the line and on the cover. To announce yourself boldly, colorfully, inside or outside the lines. School is for making little sculptures from leaves, roots, moss, twigs, berries, flower petals, grasses, and fungi, as we did in the woods at Lake Pleiad. Graeham’s “notebook” made of sticks and birch bark, connecting to a path carved into the humus, symbolizing the infinite circle of learning here, everywhere, always, neverendingly. Schools are for making mandalas out of deer antlers and beaver skulls, calculators, chess pieces, marker tops, book titles, poems, notebooks, plaster busts, and leather boots. We did this on Tuesday in groups, each mandala telling something essential about those who made it. School is for making more of ourselves out of ourselves, and seeing how others do that, too.

School is for feelings. When tears come, the school—teachers and kids—can listen and understand and not judge. If someone is unsure or fearful, they can say that. And then someone can say, “I remember when I felt that. It will get easier. I was scared too, but I grew into it. It takes time, but it is worth it.”

School should be for this moment, here, now. School should be for saying the dream and making it true. School should be for everything that is life.

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